BOLCOM: Songs of Innocence and of Experience
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William Bolcom (b. 1938)
Songs of Innocence and of Experience: A Musical Illumination of the Poems of William Blake
Ever since I was seventeen, when the reading of WilliamBlake was to make a profound difference to my life, Ihave wanted to set the entire Songs of Innocence and ofExperience to music. Several songs were actuallycompleted in 1956; The Sick Rose, and the opening,revised, of the Songs of Innocence, are survivors of thattime, and the work remained in my mind until 1973, whenI moved to Ann Arbor to teach at the University ofMichigan. I felt that I could thus simplify my life enoughto be able to realise the cycle I had dreamed of for so long.
Most of the work was completed in the years 1973-74and 1979-82; the opening of the Songs of Experience wasfully sketched in 1966 and several of the major songs datefrom the early and middle 1970s. The largest problemwas the form the entire setting would take. It could not bea standard opera, and the stopping and starting thatconstantly bedevils the oratorio form would prove fatalfor 46 poems over an evening.
The final ordering of the Songs left by Blake, as willbe seen, is quite different from the one I had become usedto in my earliest reading. In the 1880s William Muir, anartist greatly involved with the revival of interest inBlake's engravings and paintings, actually printed someof the poet's works from the original copper plates. Hethen (as Blake with his wife Catherine had done) handcolouredthem, although, to my mind, not as interestinglyor vividly as had Blake himself. In Muir's edition of TheMarriage of Heaven and Hell (1888) I found by chance inthe appendix an ordering of the Songs of Innocence and ofExperience (reproduced in what looks very much likeBlake's own hand); Blake had presumably left this for hiswife should anyone have wanted a further printing of theSongs, which had been one of the few of his engravedworks that had had any sale. (Evidently no one askedCatherine Blake for a copy.)This ordering, new to me, gave me what I needed intrying to find an overall shape to the work: a series ofarches, in both subject and emotion, that marked the pieceoff into nine clear movements, each inhabiting a certainspiritual climate and progressing ever further in Shewingthe Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. With slightchanges I have used Blake's last ordering in my piece. Ihad always wanted to end the evening with The DivineImage, which Blake had engraved and then rejected forthe Experience cycle, and I revised the order of the lastpart to accommodate the poem.
The Blakean principle of contraries -- \WithoutContraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion,Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary toHuman existence." (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)-- would also dominate my approach to the work,particularly in matters of style. Current Blake research hastended to confirm what I had assumed from the first, thatat every point Blake used his whole culture, past andpresent, highflown and vernacular, as sources for hismany poetic styles. Throughout the entire Songs ofInnocence and of Experience, exercises in elegantDrydenesque diction are placed cheek by jowl withballads that could have come from one of the "songsters"of his day (small, popular books or pamphlets of wordsset to well-known tunes, in the manner of John Gay's1728 Beggar's Opera). It is as if many people from allwalks of life were speaking, each in a different way. Theapparent disharmony of each clash and juxtapositioneventually produces a deeper and more universalharmony, once the whole cycle is absorbed. All I did wasto use the same stylistic point of departure as Blake in mymusical settings.
If any one work of mine has been the chief source andprogenitor of the others, I would have to say that this is it.
My fascination with the synthesis of the most unlikelystylistic elements dates from my knowledge andapplication of Blake's principle of contraries, and I havespent most of my artistic life in pursuit of this highersynthesis. In this work, through my settings, I have triedmy best to make everything clear; I have used music inthe same way Blake used line and colour, in order toilluminate the poems.
To me, William Blake is the most urgent of poets.
What he says is as immediate as ever, but particularly tous: he came from an epoch of social change as total asours. With clear and unjudging vision Blake saw wherethe human race was heading; it could be argued that theSongs of Innocence and of Experience may be the mostlucid explanation we have of what forces have brought usto where we are now. If there is any solution to ourunending crisis, it is only through acceptance andunderstanding of our own nature, and if I have caused amore careful listening to Blake's message, then my workover a span of 25 years will not have been in vain.William Bolcom, 1984Recollections on the Twentieth Anniversary of Songs of Innocence and of Experience
After the April 1984 United States premi?¿re of this work inAnn Arbor's Hill Auditorium - the world's firstperformances had taken place 8th and 9th January of thatyear with the Stuttgart Opera Orchestra under DennisRussell Davies - there have been twelve performances ofSongs of Innocence and of Experience: at Grant Park inChicago with Gustav Meier, who did the first Ann Arborperformance; with the Brooklyn Philharmonic under LukasFoss; with the Saint Louis Symphony, both there and inNew York, and the BBC Symphony in London, also underLeonard Slatkin; and with the Pacific Symphony in CostaMesa in Southern California under former Ann ArboriteCarl St Clair. A piece of its sheer size cannot hope to beplayed too often, and I am still amazed, twenty years later,that it has been heard all these times, sixteen performancesin all.
I was once afraid it would never be heard or evenfinished. Although parts of Songs date from almost fiftyyears ago, I certainly did not (and economically could not)work on it steadily; Songs is one of those works one doeswithout commission. Finding time and relative peace tocompose it in the sheer all-day effort to survive freelance inNew York had proved impossible. When we moved to AnnArbor, finally I was able to put the piece together; of courseI did not realise that my wife Joan Morris and I would stillbe here thirty-something years later.
You will notice many instruments unusual to theorchestra. I love writing for the "modern" symphonyorchestra, but often I am confronted with the sad fact thatits disposition, the term for its total instrumentation, hashardly evolved since World War I. (Up until then theorchestra admitted instrument after instrument whenplayers in each attained a certain level of proficiency; whythe subsequent inertia has occurred is a subject bestexplored elsewhere, but it would seem likely that anyorganization as codified, as rigidly delineated as today'sorchestra is in danger of disappearing.) The University ofMichigan School of Music provided a possible escape fromthis unevolved orchestra. A rough demographic analysis ofthe student population taken in the aggregate yields apotential orchestra including saxophones, expandedpercussion and brass, and electric instruments; all these arerepresented onstage along with the varied musical stylesthese instruments and their players bring to our neworchestra.
More important, even though Stuttgart has had theworld premi?¿re, Songs of Innocence and of Experience hadbeen primarily meant to be a work involving our wholeSchool of Music. (A school of our size could fall too easilyinto watertight departmental thinking on the part of bothfaculty and students; what a shame not to get to know andcollaborate with other kinds of musicians, or actors, ordancers, in one's learning years!) In the chorus of a StMatthe